Chester Zoo bird specialists noticed that four-year-old Munch was struggling to find fish at feeding times and bumping into other members of his colony. After investigating, they discovered he had been blinded by cataracts, a disorder which creates cloudy patches on the lens which get bigger overtime.
Sophie Bissaker, Penguin Keeper at Chester Zoo, said: “We spotted that Munch was swimming slower than normal and was struggling to dive for the fish at feeding times.
“After a thorough examination, the team discovered that Munch had cloudy patches on the lenses in each of his eyes, leaving him with very little sight in his left eye and none at all in his right. This meant that only specialist treatment could save his vision.”
Iona Mathieson, veterinary ophthalmologist at Eye Vet, carried out the delicate surgery. She said: “I have been in the veterinary field for almost 24 years and Munch is the very first penguin I’ve operated on.
“We are really happy to report that the surgery was successful and Munch is now well on the way to making a full recovery.
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“Like many of the staff at the zoo, our team has worked throughout the national lockdowns, so we are all feeling mentally and physically exhausted, but taking care of Munch was just the morale boost that we all needed.
“It is an amazing feeling knowing that we have helped save him, he’s the first thing that made me smile in a long time and caring for him was definitely the best part of my year.”
Following his procedure, Munch spent time recovering in a shallower nursery pool while keepers monitored his post-surgery progress. During this time, he was joined by his life partner and best friend, Wurly, who kept him company throughout his recovery.
Ms Bissaker added: “It was important for Munch to have time away from the rest of the group for a couple of weeks following his surgery. But penguins live in tight-knit colonies and like to be with other birds, and so we decided to provide Munch with some company with his life partner Wurly.
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“Munch really dotes on Wurly and wherever she goes, he follows, so I am sure she provided some great comfort to him. The pair have always been inseparable and had their first chick in 2019. Now, they are incubating eggs once again!
“It has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved, and although Munch is still receiving daily eye drops to help him heal, he is already swimming through the water faster, feeding with the group again and waddling around with ease. He is a confident, happy little guy again!”
Humboldt penguins are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable to extinction. Found on the coastal shores of Peru and Chile, the penguins face a number of threats such as climate change, over-fishing of their natural food sources and rising acidity and temperature levels in the oceans.
Of the world’s 18 penguin species, Humboldts are among the most at risk.